How can e-justice make a difference in justice delivery?
The rule of law is the backbone of any country. The advancement of new digital technologies is impacting on all facets of our society; the judiciary is not an exception. E-justice is now becoming the ‘de riguer’ for enhancing transparency, effectiveness and access to timely justice. E-justice can be defined as the use of digital technologies, information, communication and knowledge management techniques to improve citizen’s access to justice while enabling efficiency, effectiveness and time delivery of justice. E-justice, therefore, enables justice information, knowledge exchange, and the automation of civil and criminal proceedings in court.
At a very basic level, the e-justice system is made up of processes, software and hardware which facilitate case management such as e-filing, judge rosters, and case scheduling, courtroom recording systems, electronic notification system and information websites for the public.
An e-justice links all relevant actors in the justice space, giving them the opportunity to run virtually, including ease of access to documents, provision of real-time information and more importantly ability to access the system anytime and anywhere in the world.
The Ghana Prisons Service, for instance, would find e-justice quite useful in their work. It cuts the risks and costs associated with transferring prisoners and detainees to court by allowing testimonies and hearings to be carried out at a distance. To be efficient, e-justice should be operated in tandem with an e-prison system; a robust security system; an electronic based law enforcement system and an online forensic database to allow ease of evidence management among others.
E-justice in Ghana
Ghana’s attempt to institute a fully functional e-justice system goes back to the development of three Fast Track Courts (FTCs) in March 2001. Three High Courts in Accra were computerised, networked and Internet enabled on pilot basis. In addition, computer assisted transcript systems were put in place and training was given to staff and judges of the courts. Currently the Judicial Service of Ghana is implementing a wider e-justice project which focuses on putting a plethora of forms online though case lists and e-judgment are yet to be operational via https://judicial.gov.gh/index.php/e-services/e-forms .
The project is yet to take off fully as most of the forms are static and can only be downloaded, printed and filled manually. In addition, the judicial system needs to undergo some key changes, including, key processes changes, staff realignments and new skills and knowledge for key staff and members of the bench for the e-justice system to work.
In Turkey, their e-justice system called UYAP (http://www.e-justice.gov.tr/General-Information), is reported to have increased the effectiveness of their justice delivery services with a resultant annual savings of 100 million USD and 1.9 million users. Similarly, Italy’s “On-line Civil Trial” system has six million daily users, with reported annual savings of 55 million EUR which increased by 25 per cent the submission of legal acts to courts on (https://www.un.org/ruleoflaw/blog/2016/06/e-justice-sharing-national-experiences-in-enhancing-transparency-effectiveness-and-access-to-justice/ ).
E-justice system is able to connect all the courts seamlessly, enabling case information exchange. This means the Chief Justice at the touch of a button can have a birds eye view on what is going on across all courts in the country, providing her a powerful tool for management of judicial services.
Advantages of e-justice projects can include significant financial and time saving cost efficiency which means reduction of the cost of justice, easier access to information, enhanced data security, high quality legal data sets, minimisation of the chances of corruption, speeding up proceedings and to have the capacity to handle more cases with fewer staff, creation of new sources of services and better revenues.
An e-justice system also has the potential for the provision of a measurement tool to gauge results and productivity, real-time monitoring of proceedings, final judgements and gaining insights from statistics, which can be used for forward-looking planning.
Advocates for e-justice argue that it will provide opportunity for greater public awareness and scrutiny thereby enhancing accountability of the whole judicial system.
In spite of the many advantages of e-justice, effectively rolling it out may come with challenges.
The total cost of e-justice namely software, hardware, continuous training, other operating costs are generally higher than cost associated with manually administered systems. Though some argue that in the long run such investments will pay off, in the short term they are disabling.
For a long time, paper has been king in our judiciary system, so it will require a substantive amount of time to put all those case files into a digitalised form in the short to medium term. This makes it unlikely and unrealistic to expect to have digitised court files and records where there will be no place for paper files.
Furthermore, e-justice system can suffer from hardware, software and equipment failures, power outages and communications hitches, as well as the inability of the courts to retain highly skilled staff needed to keep high-level components of e-justice running.
The probability for the legal profession to support fewer, faster and less compelling hearings is a moot point. Since e-justice leads to reduction of number or duration of hearings, with court documentation process simplified, lawyers’ incomes will be impacted.
Lastly, the issue of further marginalising vulnerable groups is high since e-justice may mean lower access. In other words it will be important to have pathways for the poor, people with disabilities; and socially and politically excluded persons who may not have the sophistication to access justice in a high tech driven environment, by maintaining a parallel manual court system at extra cost.
In conclusion, e-justice when deployed within the right environment can improve the effectiveness of and access to justice while strengthening the rule of law. It will require the buy-in by the judiciary’s leadership, commitment on the part of judges to make use of the system, a thought- through risk mitigation system and a regulated challenges resolution mechanism.